Friday nights have been kind to us this season with four wins and a draw from our 5 previous outings so far. However, Middlesbrough arrived as the division’s form team with a similar record from their last 5 league games. Therefore this was never going to be a simple task despite the disparity in league positions; especially as we were without our top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic.
We also had to be wary of the former player syndrome with ex-academy defender Djed Spence and one-time prodigy Patrick Roberts in the Boro ranks. With Aboubakar Kamara also injured Parker had to go with a front three without a traditional centre forward. We’d often been familiar with that set up under Slav prior to Mitro’s arrival when the likes of Ayite, Aluko and Kebano would dovetail nicely. Consequently, I had no qualms about a front line containing Cavaleiro, Knockaert and Reid. Tom Cairney was back in the side and it was also nice to see Joe Bryan in the starting XI. There have been rumours of selling him this week, which have been compounded by the arrival of Terence Kongolo on loan from Huddersfield. I’m aware he’s not a perfect defender but I think he’s an excellent player who brings an extra dynamic to the side when his surges down the left. I was also happy to see Kevin McDonald retain his place. The return of the Mac has been a pleasant surprise in the last couple of weeks after he’d almost become the forgotten man over the last 18 months or so.
We’ve often been guilty of beginning matches slowly with the emphasis on retaining possession rather than getting straight at our opponents. However, we started the game like an express train last night with some delightful interchanging of passes and intricate movement, bamboozling Boro. We had the lead within 6 minutes when Bryan fizzed a ball across after a trademark burst down the left to give Knockaert what seemed an easy finish from a yard. This would be a disservice to the Frenchman though as it was his wonderful movement that allowed him to arrive in the right place at the right time.
For the next twenty minutes or so we gave a glimpse of what we’re capable of with an exhibition of wonderful football. We looked like a cross between Barcelona, Manchester City and the Harlem Globetrotters as the visitors could barely get a touch. KMac was back to his imperious best at the base of midfield, mopping everything up and pinging Hoddle-esque crossfield passes straight to his intended target. We fashioned a number of good chances in this period and in truth should have been out of sight. As so often happens though when you don’t take advantage of a purple patch, Boro worked their way back into the game in the latter part of the half. A deflected cross looped on to our crossbar and the concession of a few set pieces started to give them a foothold in the game.
An interval lead was satisfactory enough but its slender nature meant the game was still in the balance. Middlesbrough came at us a bit more at the start of the second half without really threatening to score. Michael Hector was again a very reassuring presence at the back. The only time we resorted to desperate measures was when KMac recovered his loss of possession in midfield with a shithouse tackle of the highest order that earned him a caution. I’m sure I could see Stefan Johansen licking his lips with approval on the bench. In fact with Boro a little in the ascendancy it was Stef Jo’s introduction for Cairney in the 68th minute that restored the balance and gave us back control of the match. Shortly afterwards we looked to have put the game to bed before a very late and harsh offside call denied Denis Odoi’s headed goal. The lateness of the decision at least gave us the benefit of seeing his joyous celebration and somersault. His cult hero status has gone up another notch for me – okay he gets sent off a little too much- but how can you not love that man?
We had another few breaks that threatened the sealing goal but when it didn’t come we all prepared ourselves for the standard final few minutes of nervous tension as Boro hurled a few balls into our box. In MLM’s absence, Alfie Mawson did the extra defender cameo at the end as we saw the game out to move within 4 points of Leeds in second. If they do their standard falling apart again this season then we are at least putting ourselves in position to take advantage. With 18 games left it’s all to play for and with the transfer window still open it’ll be interesting to see if the squad is strengthened further for the run-in.
Two years ago we signed a Targett in January and ended up getting promoted. Perhaps that’s why we signed an Archer this week. It’ll be lovely if we hit the bullseye come May.